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Starkey: Bill O'Brien's bad call

| Thursday, June 14, 2012, 12:30 a.m.
Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien will lead the Nittany Lions (0-1) versus Virginia on Saturday.
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien will lead the Nittany Lions (0-1) versus Virginia on Saturday. AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien led the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record during his first season at the helm.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien led the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record during his first season at the helm. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

Given all that has transpired at Penn State over the past seven months, this astonishing development escaped proper scrutiny: New football coach Bill O'Brien retained two of Joe Paterno's longtime assistants.

Let's try that again.

Bill O'Brien retained two of Joe Paterno's longtime assistants .

How did that happen?

If any freshly hired coach in the history of football needed to make a clean break from the standing regime, O'Brien was the one. He shouldn't have had a choice, but neither the Board of Trustees nor school president Rodney Erickson saw fit to make cleaning house a precondition of O'Brien's employment.

So even as the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal widened in scope and careened toward trial, O'Brien, head firmly planted in sand, thought it a swell idea to retain Ron Vanderlinden and Larry Johnson Sr.

Vanderlinden, on staff since 2001, is the co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Johnson, on staff since 1996, is the defensive line coach. More importantly, both are accomplished recruiters. Nobody had to tell O'Brien or his superiors that these men would give the program its best chance to keep some semblance of the 2012 class together.

Football games, after all, must be won, even if it is proved that a multi-level, institutional cover-up of serial child rape occurred.

The purpose here is not to demonize Johnson or Vanderlinden. Both have excellent reputations. It's possible that neither knew of or witnessed anything untoward regarding Sandusky.

But the unfortunate and undeniable truth is that anyone who worked for any significant period on Paterno's staff between 1994 and 2009 falls under the same cloud of suspicion, a cloud best framed in a few simple questions:

• What did you know and when?

• What did you see and when?

And, of course, the next logical question: If you knew something, do you, in the words of the late Paterno, wish you had done more? Sandusky, on trial for 52 counts of child sexual abuse involving 10 boys, maintained a presence around the football program for 12 years after leaving his defensive coordinator post in 1999.

Johnson and Vanderlinden already have seen one of their ex-colleagues (Mike McQueary) become a key witness in the Sandusky trial and another (Tom Bradley) become implicated as a witness.

Who's next?

Civil suits could be forthcoming. America's most-aggressive news outlets are digging like mad.

It's hard to believe that any longtime member of Paterno's staff — a small band of men who worked thousands of long days in close quarters — could have remained oblivious to the sordid matters regarding Sandusky.

Maybe some did. But we have to wait for all the facts to emerge, if they ever do.

That's the point. Until all the truth is known, anyone who coached at Penn State under Paterno should not be coaching there now.

Imagine the firestorm had Bradley been retained as an assistant or, worse, tabbed as Paterno's successor.

When he was named interim head coach, Bradley denied previous knowledge of the multiple accusations against Sandusky and of the 1998 investigation. He might have known something, though. Earlier this week, Victim 4 testified that Bradley once happened upon him showering with Sandusky and stayed to monitor the situation.

“I think he was suspicious,” Victim 4 said of Bradley.

The possibility that such assertions would emerge likely is why Bradley could not land another job after O'Brien let him go — although, amazingly, Bradley and Johnson were granted interviews for the chance to succeed Paterno.

So many Penn State heads are stuck in the sand that it's hard to keep track.

Vanderlinden and Johnson have insisted they were blindsided by the grand jury report released in November. The key piece of testimony was McQueary saying he saw Sandusky abusing a boy in the football building showers in 2002 (since adjusted to 2001).

“We're fathers,” Vanderlinden told ABC News in November, referring to himself and colleagues. “We could not have lived with ourselves for nine years having known something like that.”

Johnson told ABC News, “I was shocked like everyone else when I read (the grand jury report).”

You may choose to believe that these men knew nothing, and saw nothing, in their combined 27 years on campus. And you might be proved correct. All of the allegations have not been heard. All of the facts have not come forth.

That's the point.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at

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